On the Lookout: Big Tent Blues

We Catholics in America regularly find ourselves in the national news. A 1996 Pulitzer Prize was awarded for a series of articles in Newsday on St. Brigid’s Parish, Westbury, New York. The Catholic Common Ground Project, covered nationally, focuses on the polarization of the “American Catholic Church.” The We Are Church referendum fizzles despite early exposure on National Public Radio. These are but three samplings of recent Catholic stories capturing national attention from Bangor to San Diego.

There are also regional stories. Associated Press reports, “Pulsing drumming, high-pitched mystical chanting and the scent of sage . . .” during Saturday Mass at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, North Dakota. Until religion and Jesus reflect Indian images “Christianity will always be foreign.” Interestingly, these stories are not sensational exposes of errant clergy and the like, but a mainstream examination of Catholic life on Main Street, USA.

Americans, hip-deep in the culture wars, understand that what happens within the Catholic Church points toward the fate of the national struggle. As the nation reinterprets the Constitution—the better to accommodate multicultural and multimoral demands—it recognizes a parallel in the dissident Catholic movement to restructure the Catholic Church.

Historically, Catholicism was seen as holding the line. Throughout two millennia, the Church has called the faithful to heroic virtue—in personal practice and in public life. Realign, redesign, reimage the Catholic Church, and the culture war is lost.

News stories make clear that “American Catholics” is preferred to “Catholic Americans.” Theological spin doctors insist Vatican II changed Church teaching to accommodate the democratic demands of the culture. Pastoral practice must reflect the individual’s experience of his culture and not the laws of the Church.

At St. Brigid’s of Pulitzer fame, Newsday found “in atmosphere and attitude it seems a fitting place to serve as a focus for an examination of parish life on Long Island thirty years after the Second Vatican Council launched a major rethinking of what parish life should be.” The parish is described as guided by a progressive pastor overseeing a multicultural congregation that “embodies modern Catholic life.”

The twenty-three thousand parishioners at St. Brigid’s wrestle with multicultural Masses and the role of the laity. St. Brigid’s also holds special liturgies for parents of gay children. Other separate liturgies are listed in the twenty-page bulletin.

Much of the practice at St. Brigid’s, both pastoral and liturgical, is indicative of the issues addressed by the Catholic Common Ground Project. Initiated by the late Cardinal Bernardin, CCGP intends to initiate a series of dialogues among polarized groups within the Church in the United States.

The underlying demand is that private experience and innovation are equal to any historical teaching and therefore entitled to equal promulgation. Such thinking calls into question our true foundation and so ensures further polarization.

Catholic Americans differ in ethnic roots, education, and political party affiliation. We are united by an overarching bond—the Mass. The Mass makes us family anywhere in the world.


  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

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